A few months ago, award-winning British director and director of photography Liam Hall flew to Dubai in search of a production company with which he could develop his commercials directing career. One of the first companies he approached was Phoenix Film where he met Stuart Chambers, a producer of high-end commercials and human interest corporate and documentary films who had resided in the Middle East for thirty years.
“Stuart was looking for a director who could raise the bar on his company’s documentary film work. Despite my original plan to push for commercials, the projects he proposed were too good to miss,” says Hall. Following discussions with several other Dubai-based production companies, he signed an exclusivity agreement with Chambers at Phoenix Film.
Hall’s first collaboration was a special documentary with a global perspective for Qatar National Day. It was commissioned for the Emir of the state of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, by Bristol Gulf in Doha and set out to relate the personal stories of people who had suffered terrible tragedies when their regions were struck by natural disasters. The focus would be on the significant impact that aid from Qatar had had on them and their communities in the ensuing weeks and months.
“I could tell Stuart really wanted this project because it offered a unique opportunity to produce a film that could make a real difference” remarks Hall, who prepared the director’s treatment. It explained how the camera would make a dignified journey from New Orleans to Lebanon, and on to Pakistan and Indonesia, relating each story through eye-witness accounts. “The changing landscapes would provide a varied and enigmatic backdrop upon which we’d stage our stories,” he adds.
“Liam is a thoughtful and talented director who understood that depth and detail would be essential in giving the stories a compelling resonance,” reflects Chambers. “We’d need time to identify and get to know each character, and connect with him or her. It would be crucial to engender a feeling of pride and create a real and lasting impression; after all, these were heroes who would be the stars of the film. His treatment hit the nail bang on. Four stories, four individuals and one glorious message: ‘Thank you, Qatar, for the aid. Thank you for the hope’.”
“The Emir demanded the highest production value for this prestigious documentary. That meant film,” states Hall. “We also needed as natural and authentic a look as possible to reflect the subject’s deep emotional core. KODAK VISION3 500T 7219 was the obvious choice. Its natural colour rendition, exposure latitude and increased dynamic range promised a better option than HD and enabled us to capture scenes in a photographic style. Achieving great natural colours by exposing a piece of daylight film across a landscape is preferable by far to spending days in a grading suite trying to cheat the look.” In addition, Hall used KODAK VISION2 250D 7205 in his ARRI SR3A Super 16 camera.
Qatar Thank You presented enormous logistical and budgetary challenges, as well as a short turn-around time. “Seventeen flights and 44,000 miles in less than two months” notes Hall, distinctly recalling Chambers’ “wry” smile as they flew out of Dubai. “Some of the crew thought it couldn’t be done, but I was about to show them that it could,” says Chambers.
“At each location we got the interpreters and the local crew together to explain to them what we were trying to achieve. We wanted to elevate everything that we and they did to the highest possible level. We needed to treat everyone with a great deal of respect and tread carefully and quietly.”
Hall continues: “The stories deserved to be told in a deliberate, considered way in a contemporary cinematic style, employing techniques more akin to commercials than news or documentary. To this end, the mood and tone were all-important. In order to create a heightened sense of emotion, we filmed photographic-style portraits of our subjects working and travelling, as though for a glossy travel magazine. Getting the style correct was the key to our success. The visual look of film played a vital part in conveying the significance of the stories being told.”
For 57 days the pair chased around the globe, shooting and editing in some of the most isolated regions on earth, uncovering stories of real human drama, courage, dignity and survival against the odds. “Our searches for the right people to place at the heart of the film in the different locations were made immeasurably easier by the Qatar Red Crescent and other charities on the ground. They helped us to identify people who had stared disaster in the face, were prepared to talk about it – sometimes for the first time – and articulate the impact it had on their lives,” says Chambers.
Banda Aceh in Sumatra was a scene of unimaginable horror in December 2004 when the Asian Tsunami struck. “Capturing the emotional depth of destruction was our greatest test,” muses Chambers, who focused on local fisherman Sohurli. “It was a week before he could tell us his story. The terror of that dark day is still etched in his eyes, but he displayed a dignity and depth of character. The tsunami nearly killed him and his family. His wife was swept away by the second wave and he thought he had lost her. When his grip weakened on his son, he dug his teeth into the boy’s shirt and carried him above the wave, like a cat carrying a kitten. Miraculously, they all survived and were reunited a few days later.”
Hall’s initial concerns that the documentary had peaked too early were to prove unfounded. In New Orleans, the next emotionally-charged stop, a young student whose community had literally been washed away by Hurricane Katrina told of her desperate fight for survival. She described how, with help from Qatar, her life is now getting back on track. The camera surveyed the absolute devastation in the poorest neighbourhoods, but then witnessed the recovery in parts of the city.
In Bin Jbeil, Lebanon, a local dentist related his extraordinary story of the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. He hid in a small basement room for over three weeks with his family and neighbours until a brief ceasefire gave them the opportunity to escape. He explained how aid from Qatar is helping to rebuild the town, giving people hope for the future.
High in the mountains of Kashmir, in the toughest of environments, a village elder remembered the earthquake of 2005. His story of survival is remarkable, as are his efforts since that devastating event to help his community by rebuilding schools and setting up a mobile hospital.
“We returned to Dubai with the film footage exactly as we wanted it. Stuart had a spring in his step that belied the exhaustion he must have felt. We had both borne witness to tragedy, but we had also seen hope,” says Hall.
“We flew equipment around the world and used Land Rovers to reach very remote areas. We also shot 10,000 feet up in mountains. Film helped us to maintain a consistency between the diverse locations where we used local focus-pullers and has created a naturally authentic look for the documentary more quickly and easily than any other route. It has also imparted a certain honesty to the whole production.”
“Interviews are often over-lit on video documentaries, but, when we filmed ours, all we usually needed was a reflector – then we were good to go. It certainly helped our subjects feel comfortable in front of the camera. We didn’t want any clever trickery to come between them and the viewer as they related their stories. Film has produced images with greater gravity than HD could have done.”
“There’s something very compelling about using a movie camera and putting a film reel inside it. It forces you as a filmmaker to examine what you’re doing and how you’re doing it,” enthuses the self-confessed ‘old film dog’. “Everything we did had that same sense of purposefulness about it; a production mentality that continued throughout our work.”
Post-production on Thank You Qatar was undertaken at Nirvana Post-Production Dubai, a Phoenix Film facility. Originally of 17-minutes’ duration, it was extended to 30-minutes following the first offline presentation. The Emir watched it on a cinema screen, played on a loop on a channel specially commissioned for the screening. “You could really see the difference with film and Super 16mm works fantastically well blown up onto a 20-foot screen,” says Hall.
The documentary was produced as a ‘thank you’ to the Qatari individuals concerned and has been screened around the world through Qatari Embassies and diplomatic missions. “Making the film has been a rare privilege,” admits Hall, who looks forward to further collaboration with Phoenix Film. “There are no words to describe how the production has touched us – and still does,” adds Chambers. “Thank You Qatar is dedicated to the men and women who suffered more than most human beings can ever begin to imagine.”
Hall has shot several Super 16mm film stock promo films for Kodak, including Rainbow Nation, which showcased KODAK VISION3 500 7219.